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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Comp. Sci. Professor Tom Cormen

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Tom Cormen1.jpgTom Cormen is a Professor of Computer Science as well as one of the most well-rounded leaders at the College. He is a distinguished researcher on topics like parallel computing, the author of the definitive textbook on algorithms, the former Director of the Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, and he currently serves as chair of the Committee on Instruction.

That list sounds like a lot, but Cormen’s career path was much simpler to begin with. As a senior in high school, he took a programming class and was allowed to code on his school’s only computer: an IBM 1130 with just 8k of core memory. Cormen continued to pursue computer science in college at Princeton, where he graduated summa cum laude. He didn’t go straight to graduate school though; he spent six years near Silicon Valley working for a couple of startups that didn’t make it (and working next door to Seagate Technologies, which did). Cormen then came back east to earn his Ph.D. at MIT.

Cormen studied at MIT under Charles Leiserson, who would be a pivotal player in his career. First, the two earned a patent for a computer switch design. They also researched parallel computing, the concept of multiple computer processors working together at the same time while not stepping on each other’s virtual toes. Those concepts power nearly all of our modern devices, and Cormen continues to research them, along with other computer science topics like latency.

But soon he had a different project. After Cormen spent a semester serving as a teaching assistant for Leiserson’s course on algorithms, the two of them (along with Ron Rivest) coauthored Introduction to Algorithms, a 1,050-page textbook published by the MIT Press in 1990. As a result, Cormen wouldn’t finish his Ph.D. for eight years, but the book became a huge hit. It has since come out in more than fourteen languages and two more editions. The book alone has more than 42,000 individual citations, according to Google Scholar.

Cormen joined Dartmouth in 1992, and he has since taught sixteen different computer science courses, including COSC 1 (formerly 5): Introduction to Programming and Computation in all but two years. Cormen says he enjoys seeing students who never considered computer science engaging with the subject and often deciding to take it further. He currently teaches a course on algorithms (since he literally wrote the book) and another on parallel computing.

His life at the College has been busy outside of the classroom as well. From 2009 until last year Cormen was the chair of the computer science department. Before that, he was the director of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric (previously known as the Writing Program), serving from 2004 to 2008. A programmer might seem like an odd choice for head of the writing program, but Cormen always emphasizes writing and presentation skills with his undergraduate and graduate students. He says professional success, even for comp sci grads, comes down to communication.

Cormen has also been active in College committees, most recently serving on the Committee on Grading Practices with Mark McPeek, and he carries on the battle against grade inflation with the Committee on Instruction. While he doesn’t want to take any drastic action, like limiting the number of A’s given out, Cormen hopes to help students and faculty come around to enforcing the College’s existing grading standards. In his most recent courses, he has experimented with different grading policies to see what standard elicits the best work from his students.

In this video, Cormen introduces and moderates a panel on The Future of Computing - The Next 50 Years:

Addendum: In his free time, Cormen is an active contributor to Quora, where he answers such questions as: “What would be your best advice for someone just starting college at Dartmouth?” He has also hiked all 48 of the 4000-foot White Mountains in New Hampshire and roller-bladed/biked the 71.4 mile Trail of the Coeur D’Alenes in Idaho.

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